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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Fountainhead of the Acqua Felice



The two preceding views of the Trevi fountain introduce a small group of images that each display and challenge the political power that modern fountains embody. This view includes two intersections. It presents its subject, the Fountainhead of the Acqua Felice, along a dramatic diagonal line that meets the façade of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in the background of a vividly populated street scene. The image also displays the intersection of urban order and natural overflow. The fountain is a site of urban power: d
esigned by Domenico Fontana in 1585-88 and restored by Pope Sixtus V, it is the first monumental fountain since antiquity and conveys the authority of the Catholic church through its resemblance to an ancient triumphal arch. At the limits of the image, the foreground is dotted with stooped human figures and, to the left, architectural rubble. Foliage sprouts from the top of every built structure. Piranesi’s text here is minimal, identifying only the title of the print and Santa Maria della Vittoria, but its presentation is dramatic, appearing in a large, undulating banderol with generous blank space.


Michel de Certeau describes, in his Practice of Everyday Life, an opposition between the power of urban control and the erratic energy of the street (91-5) by identifying “the network of an antidiscipline” that is at odds with “the grid of ‘discipline’” (xiv-xv). Building on this opposition, Rose Marie San Juan has argued that prints of fountains “argue for progress and social order but also confront dynamic movement, seepage, and unpredictability within urban space” (137). Piranesi’s composition depicts this tension in two dimensions. The cross atop the fountainhead that punctures the engraving’s margin conveys the church’s expansive power, and the oblique perspective emphasizes the fountainhead’s mass. This power is at odds, though, with uncontrolled vitality. The botanical growth that surrounds the image challenges the fountain’s dominance of nature. Human activity, which is usually absent from earlier views of fountains, is abundant in this view, where it seems to be primarily social—there are no indications of commerce or tourism that are frequent in Piranesi’s other prints. To be sure, fountains served as meeting-places and centers for social encounter. But here, people are everywhere, gesticulating in the street, leaning out from windows, and, quite significantly, standing between the caption’s curling illusionistic scroll. There, between image and text, between illusion and reality, Piranesi creates dissonance that matches the conflict the image stages between the regulation of nature and the spillage of the city’s population. The expressive human figures that populate most of Piranesi’s views here confront the political power of the Church and its urban projects with the vitality of a natural force that, unlike the water that the fountain controls, defies regulation: the human energy of street life.

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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